It’s never just the talks that make Firestarters so valuable. It’s the conversations.
An idea may have begun to form during Paul Feldwick’s lecture on what advertising thinks about itself. But it only really took hold once it had been allowed to audibly work itself out later.
The verbal thinking-throughs this time were thanks to Google minglers, the pub chat later, and my mate Jason after that. He not only put me up, he also put up with me. He’s a lawyer, and as I was bending his ear later, this perspective helpfully illuminated the premise of this week’s talk.
Paul Feldwick says that in advertising you rarely need to prove anything. Knowledge is not so much accumulated as asserted. Multiple narratives compete for primacy and the best story teller gets the headlines. Different ideas of how advertising works – and even of what it is – echo through our processes and practices with little shared understanding of where they come from. Ideas graduate with minimal friction to the status of ideology. Meaningful debate is difficult, because it’s driven by dogma rather than a derived understanding of what is effective. Best practice is less a religion than it is a faith. No one expects you to have any knowledge of what came before.
In law, without that knowledge you can’t practice. Qualifications speak to your education and expertise. The relationship between specific cases and general theory is debated with delicate nuance and forensic attention to detail. There is a cumulative baseline of knowledge and craft. That craft is applied within strict guidelines yet remains subjective, creative and rigorous.
I’ve written before – sort of – about advertising’s reluctance to accept lessons from its forbears. But I’ve never really thought about it properly. Paul’s thesis is rigorously researched, illuminating and appears one of those theories that seems so obvious once it’s explained that you feel a little bit silly for not having it recognised it before.
You might even CHANGE EVERYTHING if that wasn’t so obviously falling into the Year Zero narrative trap that Paul specifically pointed out.
I’m looking forward to reading the book, and this mulling has already got me thinking about where our institutional tendency might come from. Advertising isn’t quite like law, just like it isn’t quite like a lot of other things: science, art, entertainment. It acts like and learns from each of those realms at times. But as Paul was talking it struck me that maybe advertising behaves more like something else.
Culture isn’t codified like law. Culture, specifically youth culture, often defines itself against the past even as it remains haunted by it. The new dismisses and denies aspects of the old; it reclaims and revives others. In particular, in the world of pop music this impulse is generational and ideological. Punk’s patricide of peace and love, or the radical reinventions in jazz that would render the previous style instantly obsolete – these moments are more than fashion. They are an obsession with and an expression of the new.
Since at least the 60s advertising has been populated by thrusting young things. It offers them a natural habitat situated halfway between youthful rebellion and corporate adulthood. The industry’s history is punctuated by periodic injections of that cultural exuberance and frequent hits of technological change. Maybe that’s why we’ve institutionalised the kind of narratives that dismiss, deny and misinterpret the past. We like to think of ourselves as always changing.
The IPA’s flagship training programme, the Excellence Diploma, embodies this duality. Students are tested rigorously and intensively on the canon of marketing and advertising. It then culminates in a dissertation where they are asked to come up with an entirely original theory of brands – a new way of seeing that might give rise to a new ideology or dogma.
Is this culture comparison a useful one?
My own love of music and youth culture was – is – all encompassing. I would fall for the aesthetic, influences and ideologies that my favourite musicians espoused. I would willingly get tangled in the tendrils of the musical family tree. This led to that by way of this which is against that which hated that. Sometimes this led to conflicts. Could I like this and that? Things I loved came from different worlds. But they were so compelling that it was inevitable I would fall under both spells. The inconsistencies just had to work themselves out.
Sometimes advertising feels like that. Opposing ideologies each as seductive as the other. Long term effectiveness, yeah! Test and learn and agile – you bet! Which one am I today? With music these multiple identities would influence how I dressed. Maybe today it affects my thinking and my powerpoint.
Of course, with time and distance the stylistic tribalism dissipates. You pan out. Up close the differences are everything. But at a distance it’s the similarities that resonate. You realise the dogma is a distraction. You search for deeper meaning and better connections.
I was sharing this theory (the one about music) with Phil in the pub. (At least I think I was, it was the pub.). He acknowledged that when he was at school you could either be punk or heavy metal. Never both. Yet zoom out – from further away you could maybe squint and just about make out some blokes with guitars. Another example – imagine a mod and a disco fan. Superficially different, but essentially the same – which is why Quadrophenia has exactly the same plot as Saturday Night Fever. (Although more specifically, this is the real reason for that.)
Maybe this was just me. And it doesn’t matter all that much. But let’s stretch the analogy anyway.
When I started buying and listening to music, you chose from what you found in the record shop and connect it what you read once a week in NME. No one taught you taste. Apart perhaps from some influential and clued-up people you were lucky enough to know in person. You had to learn and graduate from there. You guessed there were rules but you had to work them out. You certainly wouldn’t let anyone know you weren’t really qualified. Looking back you realise how little you knew and cringe at some of the things you said. You thought you were inventing this. What you loved you thought was entirely original.
Now with Spotify, blogs and whatever else you can realise there is nothing new under the sun. And it’s never been easier to be inspired by what came before. You can choose from an endless present, with no boundaries in style or time. You can see where it all came from but not be burdened by history. The pressure’s off because you can realise more quickly how it all connects. You can research about it all in private and not pay quite so much for your inevitable mis-steps. There are rules, but you can focus on what works for you. You needn’t be trapped by the dogma that happens to prevail when you start. And you realise how much there is to know and how impossible it is for anyone to have and apply all that knowledge all the time.
Why would you even try?
Thanks to Paul Feldwick’s talk – and the conversations it sparked – I feel like someone who’s just opened up Spotify for the first time.